Storytelling with digital media: Introduction

In Uncategorized on 2009-07-09 by Kyle Maxwell

First in a series.

At our core, storytellers explore the conflicts characters experience in a world. Perhaps the world differs vastly from what we normally experience, but it almost always illustrates something about our own.

Take the example of a dystopian future: an oppressive government that does not recognize basic civil rights like freedom of speech, freedom of worship, due process, and so on. While we don’t live in that world, the audience can start thinking about those sorts of rights by contrast (and perhaps by comparison). But the storyteller will want to ensure that we view that fictional government as evil and feel the resulting fear and paranoia.

We can create this world digitally and tell the stories using these new media. When the story doesn’t have to limit itself to 1000 words but instead embeds itself somehow in a game or other interactive, visually-oriented media, it can show a lot more than it would have to tell in other formats. The audience can interact with the environment rather than just observe it passively.

When creating original worlds or using some part of our “real” world with digital media, the storyteller has many new options. This includes obvious bits like graphic and sound and the environment they can create, but also interactivity. For example, in a virtual world set in that dystopian future, simply walking down the street might lead to questioning by local authorities seeking identification. Perhaps additional minor storylines (“side quests”) can demonstrate different facets of the government or underground resistance, allowing the audience to explore the world. Other characters, controlled by players, have incentives to represent various factions or simply roleplay as inhabitants. That sort of realism via shared storytelling creates a far richer experience for the audience.

Alternately, perhaps the storyteller chooses to create a graphic novel. Rather than draw every panel and spend immense amounts of time on printing and distribution, he can create the world digitally, add sound or limited animation, maybe even hyperlinks, and publish to the entire world immediately. The work can branch and allow the audience to participate through making choices, converting the narrative to second-person. The innovation here has as much to do with the distribution and ease of creation (and thus the democratization of storytelling) as it does with the benefits of the medium itself.

Storytelling using digital media allows the creation of a much more immersive setting without having to indulge in exposition. We have an abundance of tools including virtual worlds like Metaplace, Second Life, and MMORPGs (particularly those with an emphasis on user-generated content such as City of Heroes / Villains and Star Wars Galaxies), not to mention visual and audio editing tools like DAZ3D or Poser, GIMP, Audacity, and even Blender. The new, social web allows the sharing of these creations with the entire world, whether the storyteller uses text, sound, video, or interactive worlds. So this explosion in user-accessible (though perhaps not yet “friendly”) tools for both creation and distribution speaks to the growth in ability using these new media.

The printing press didn’t eliminate oral traditions and the spoken word from storytelling, though it did drastically change their role in many contexts. Written stories will always have a place in narrative and culture, too, even as digital media and tools advance in coming decades. But storytellers can now create much greater immersion and allow for exploration in ways linear, more limited media cannot.

Tomorrow: Storytelling via machinima


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